eTech 2008

Presented at the eTech|Ohio State Technology Conference
February 4, 2008

How do you find professional development that is tailored to YOUR needs? Create a Personal Learning Network to connect with other professionals all over the world. By sharing common experiences, challenges, and successes, everyone learns from the community. This session provides an overview of Personal Learning Networks and highlights the EdTechTalk community.

Thanks to everyone who attended my session. If you’re interested in the Powerpoint presentation, you can download either the sides view or the handouts pages.  If you’d rather just jump to the link, you can find them over at delicious.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert with any of this. I really don’t know how much of this you’re going to be able to apply to your situation. I have no idea how one would take these ideas and try to build a scalable professional development model for a whole school (or district) full of teachers. And if I wanted to try to create personal learning networks for students, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

What I can tell you about is my experience. I’ll try to offer some perspective and suggestions along the way, and hopefully you’ll walk away with something useful.

PodcastMy Journey
It all started with podcasts. In the fall of 2005, I had read about podcasts, and was very interested in them. I drive 40 minutes each way to and from work every day. If I could find some good podcasts to listen to in the car, I could really improve how I was using that time. If I could do some sort of professional development — even informally — it would be time well spent.

I searched online for podcasts relating to education and technology. I’m a technology coordinator. I used to be a middle school teacher. I try to make it easier for teachers to use technology in their classrooms. I found two interesting ed-tech-related podcasts. The first of these was a podcast called EdTechTalk, and the other was Bit by Bit. I downloaded the latest episodes of each and burned them to CDs.

On the way home, I listened to EdTechTalk. As luck would have it, this was episode 27, which was their “Back to Basics” episode. In it, hosts Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier re-introduced the EdTechTalk community. They talked about educational technology, open source software, their philosophies of education, and the potential of emerging “web 2.0” tools. I thought this was wonderful. These guys are talking about the same kinds of things I’ve been thinking about. They’re trying to use open source software and they’re trying to get people to collaborate, and they’re not blindly just drinking the Kool Aid and doing what the loud voices in education are telling them to. This is different.

Bit by BitThe next day, I put in the Bit By Bit CD. At the time, host Bob Sprankle was a teacher in a multi-age classroom in Maine. His students had been blogging for more than a year, and they had recently begun podcasting. The particular episode I listened to was episode 17, which was a recording of a presentation Bob gave at the 2005 Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in New Hampshire. Bob was talking about the podcasting project he had been doing with his students. Right at the beginning of the presentation, Bob says, “any time you need more information, go listen to episode 27 from Jeff.” He also pointed out that Jeff was sitting in the audience.

How cool is that? The second podcast I listened to referred to the first one. These people know each other. They refer to each other. They bounce ideas back and forth, challenge each other’s assumptions, push each other to new levels. This is pretty neat.

Throughout the next year, I continued to listen to these podcasts, along with some others. Each week, I’d burn a few CDs and listen to them in the car. They were frequently referring to other people in the educational technology community, and I found myself with a growing list of podcasts and people to pay attention to. It even got to the point where I was keeping a pad of paper in the car in case they mentioned something I wanted to look up later. I could jot down a couple words on the pad and then look it up later.

So there I am, driving home from work, listening to educational technology podcasts, and taking notes. In my car. While driving. It sounds dangerous, but when compared to eating and talking on the phone and changing the radio station and yelling at the kids while driving, it’s not quite so bad.

EdTechTalk LogoAfter a while, I realized that EdTechTalk wasn’t really a podcast. I was actually listening to an audio archive of a show that’s broadcast live over the Internet. If I tuned it at the right time, I could listen as they’re actually recording the show. As it turned out, there were quite a few people who did this. Those people were in a chat room at the same time, and they were talking about the show and the ideas being presented. The show hosts were also in the chat room, and they would occasionally refer to chat comments, address concerns raised in the chat, and steer the conversation in the direction the chat wanted to go.

I didn’t tune in live. I try not to spend to much computer time at home. I do enough of that at work, and I generally prefer to do other things at home. Sunday is family time, and that’s when the show was. So I was happy to just listen to the podcast.

In the fall of 2006, I noticed that there was a new show in my feed. In addition to the regular EdTechTalk and informal brainstorming sessions I was used to, there was a new show called EdTechWeekly. EdTechWeekly is “a weekly roundup of news and resources in the world of educational technology.” This wasn’t an hour-long discussion. Each of the three hosts spent 60-90 seconds on each topic. Then, they moved right on to the next one. In a half hour show, they covered 20 different news and resource topics. This was really neat. They talked about useful stuff. There were lots of resources I wanted to learn more about. I was writing more and more in the car.

After listening to both shows for a couple months, I blogged about them. I mentioned that EdTechTalk wasn’t really breaking much new ground, and that the fast-paced EdTechWeekly was much more useful to me. I blog about stuff all the time. I didn’t think much of it.

Two weeks later, I nearly drove off the road when Jeff mentioned me by name on the show. Because I had mentioned the show, my post showed up in his RSS reader, and he read the post. They took my input to heart, and actually stopped producing EdTechTalk a few weeks later.

This was a huge thing for me. The voices coming out of my car stereo have always been untouchable. Terri Gross doesn’t mention me on her show. The local radio station doesn’t stop playing a song just because I don’t like it. Leo Laporte doesn’t ask for my opinion on the week’s technology news. All Things Considered doesn’t change their format to accommodate my preferences. Jimmy Buffett doesn’t call me up to ask what I think of the new album. But these webcasters are real people. They read blog posts. They respond to comments. I can talk to them. If I tune it during the show, I can influence the show while they’re recording it. I realized that I needed to do that.

The EdTechTalk Community
I logged into the chat room and listened to a show live. There were a dozen or more people in there, and they were extraordinarily active in their comments. In some cases, they took the conversation in a whole different direction. The part that really amazed me, though, is the extent to which the show hosts were actively participating in the chat.

ETT Participate LiveThese people are broadcasting a live audio show while participating in a chat room with people who are listening to the show. They call this live interactive webcasting. I call it amazing. My wife asks me a question while I’m watching TV, and she has to repeat it. If I’m reading a book and I get interrupted, I have to re-read that page over again. These people are simultaneously carrying on two conversations in two different media at the same time, bringing the two together when they fit, and letting them take their own directions when appropriate. Listening days later to the audio archive, the show still makes sense as a podcast. Amazing.

In some shows, they used Skype to let people call in and join the conversation. In others, they used Yugma to demonstrate software and resources by sharing their screens with the live audience. In future shows, they would use Ustream to show live video. And the people participating live are all teachers and professors and graduate students and education professionals working on improving education through the use of technology. They have similar questions, concerns, and challenges as I have. Some of them have found innovative and unique approaches to problems I have. Others are struggling with challenges that I have found a solution for. We can learn a lot from one another.

As it turns out, this group of people makes up the EdTechTalk community. In addition to the EdTechTalk and EdTechWeekly shows, there are eight others that make up the network. Each has its own unique focus. It’s Elementary! focuses on technology use at the elementary school level. Making Connections collaboratively explores a new technology, with the participants all exploring something new together while brainstorming ideas on how it can be used productively. Women of Web 2.0 provides a female perspective on educational technology.

collaborateThe members of the community regularly discover new tools and find uses for them in the schools. They use Skype for audio and video conferencing. They organize and share links and bookmarks with They collaboratively develop documents using wikis. They use threaded discussions and real-time text chats where appropriate. They build their own sites with the Drupal content management system. They teach online with Moodle. They create interactive multimedia slide shows with Voicethread. And they stay in touch with the community with Twitter. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t know what most of those are. And they certainly don’t know how to integrate them, or when to use each of them. But this group sees that big picture, and they can help.

To teach people how to create and host their own shows, Jeff and company created The Webcast Academy. You can sign up and take this free online class and learn how to create your own webcast. As a member of a cohort, you work with other interested education professionals while you learn how to use Skype, record a conversation, broadcast live audio and video, manage a chat room, and post archives of your content.

The more I interacted with this group of people, the deeper the well got. Almost all of these participants have their own blogs, and they regularly read each other’s stuff and comment on it. Many have worked together on student collaborative projects, including educational, walled-garden social networks for middle and high school students. All of them are reflective, and they share their insights, their ideas, their concerns, their challenges, and their victories with the community. And they’re always willing to help.

Real-World Application
In December, we received a note home from my first grader’s teacher:

I need your help! Today we were supposed to read our gingerbread stories and share our gingerbread village with the folks at Stow Glen residential facility. Unfortunately, our Christmas snow has made it hard for them to come to our room…. The students were so disappointed to hear the news today…I think I saw tears…. If you are able to come in without a challenge [Friday morning] please do…. This is not about presenting to parents, it is just a way to share our hard work! Thanks for your understanding!

The wheels immediately started turning. The kids have something to share, and they need an audience. A lot of the parents have work or other commitments, and won’t be able to make it. This is only a couple days away, and it’s hard to switch plans, especially a few days before Christmas. I skyped Jeff. Can we webcast this? He didn’t see why not. Then I emailed the teacher.

I don’t know if you’re interested — but it would be possible to webcast the gingerbread presentations. If we brought in a webcam and a microphone, we could broadcast audio and/or video on the Internet. Caregivers who can’t attend could watch live, and even make comments and ask questions through a text-based chat.

Megan reading her gingerbread storyAfter checking district policies, getting the right permissions, and working around the technical limitations of the district’s infrastructure, we found a solution that worked. Jeff provided a lot of help by bridging a video skype call to a ustream broadcast. And we had 23 people watching this presentation, including grandparents in Florida and Colorado. We archived the video, and many more were able to watch it later, including the students themselves, who were really excited about it.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought that such a thing would be possible, let alone practical. I didn’t attend an inservice on video streaming. I didn’t take a graduate class or workshop on using webcams and bridging skype calls with ustream broadcasts. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment when I had learned enough to know that this could work. It was just a matter of having the background of knowledge of the tools and their capabilities and their possibilities. The only way I could learn that kind of thing is through participation in the group — in my personal learning network.

A New Model for Professional Development
Lecture HallWe learned a long time ago that putting 50 people in a room and lecturing to them for and hour (or two) about some topic that’s important to us (but not necessarily important to them) is one of the least effective ways of teaching. We criticize the teachers who teach this way, and encourage them to do different types of multi sensory activities with their students. We talk about different learning modalities, and differentiated instruction. But when it comes to professional development, we corral all of the teachers into the media center or auditorium on “inservice day” and lecture at them.

In special education, we started using Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) about 15 years ago. In a nutshell, the IEP is a plan for academic growth that is used with special education students. It includes an assessment of the student’s current academic level, enumerates goals for the coming year, describes strategies and procedures to be used to meet those goals, and explains how progress will be measured. While IEPs have come under a lot of fire because of the administrative overhead involved, it is pretty clear that they do work when used as intended. They focus on the individual needs of the student, and set a realistic plan based on those needs.

A decade or so ago, we started doing a similar thing with professional development. Teachers were encouraged to develop an Individual Professional Development Plan. In it, they describe their professional growth goals, outline the activities they will use to meet those goals, and describe how achievement of those goals will be measured. This plan is now required as part of the teacher licensure process in Ohio, and similar plans are used in many other states as well. A local professional development committee reviews the plans and the activities, and determines whether the activities sufficiently meet the goals of the plan. Activities are approved or not approved accordingly, and teacher licenses can be renewed when sufficient progress has been made.

If taken seriously and implemented correctly, this process should result in significantly improved individual professional growth among teachers. The problem is that the plans are extraordinarily broad, the activities are not checked to ensure that they address the goals of the teacher’s individual plans, and the teachers only have to prove attendance, not achievement. A moderately-sized district will see several thousand activities needing approval each year. When the committee only meets monthly, there’s not a lot of time for reflection about each one.

But if the teacher is committed to personal professional growth, an online personal learning network can provide a lot more relevant content than a graduate workshop. And the professional development plan model provides a framework to make the use of such networks possible.

Your Personal Learning Network
How do you get started? Maybe you’re convinced that you want to be part of the network. Maybe you’re not sure but you’re willing to take a look. The easiest way to get started is to join one the communities online. In addition to EdTechTalk, there are several online communities relating to education and technology:

  • Tapped In LogoTapped In has been around for a long time. This is an international community of education professionals, including K-12 teachers, librarians, administrators, and professional development staff that gathers to learn, collaborate, share, and support one another. They don’t do video or audio — just text chatting and online forums. It’s an easy site to use, and there are lots of people eager to help.
  • Teach Web 2.0 is a group of curious teachers who explore and brainstorm ways to integrate Web 2.0 technologies into their teaching. Many of them are in Florida, where they have face-to-face meetings twice a month, but they also have participants from all over the world who join them online.
  • Gifted Education 2.0 is a group of teachers focusing on improving education for the gifted and talented. In a world focused on meeting minimum standards, the gifted often get overlooked. These teachers are helping each other meet the unique challenges of these extraordinary students.
  • Classroom 2.0 is a social networking site for educators interested in collaborative technologies. It is an especially supportive community for beginners and a comfortable place to start being part of the digital dialog.
  • The Innovative Teachers Network is an effort by Microsoft to bring teachers together to become active stakeholders in the profession. Their global community is focused on 21st century learning and preparing students to become productive 21st century citizens.
  • The Discovery Educator Network is an effort by Discovery Education to bring teachers together to collaborate and explore new educational resources.
  • The Bloggers Cafe is a network that grew out of the 2007 National Educational Computing Conference in Atlanta. The edubloggers who met there gained so much from interacting with one another at the conference that they decided to continue the conversation online. EdTechTalk member and famous TechnoSpud Jennifer Wagner spearheaded this effort.
  • Students 2.0 launched in the fall of 2007. You didn’t think personal learning networks were just for teachers, did you? This group of students are the ones who come to school every day, raise their hands with safe questions, and keep their heads down. Except, now they have a voice to share their ideas through a global network.

The Long Tail
Maybe there’s nothing in this list that appeals to you. That’s okay. You can just jump on The Long Tail. In 2004, Chris Anderson coined the phase to describe phenomena like Amazon. com. The popular, “best-seller” types of items only make up a fraction of Amazon’s total sales. Most of their sales come from more obscure, harder-to-find items. Because of the scale of their distribution method and the low overhead cost, they can provide products that the physical stores can’t.

The Long TailThink of it this way. Let’s say there’s a book about England and Iberia in the Middle Ages (there is, by the way). If you’re the manager of your local Borders book store, how many copies of that are you going to order? How many people in, say, Cleveland, are going to buy that book? And how many are going to come to your store to get it? It probably doesn’t make sense to stock it, because chances are you’re going to be putting it in the bargain bin in six months and selling it at a loss.

But in Amazon’s case, it doesn’t cost them anything. They just list it on their web site. If someone wants it, Amazon orders it from the publisher and fills the order. Even if they only sell one copy, they make money.

Take that a step further. You write and publish your own book. Go to Upload your book. Tell them how much money you want to make per copy. They’ll tell you how much you have to charge for the book in order to make that much. When someone orders the book, they print a copy and send it to them, and you get your cut. There’s no overhead. Suddenly you don’t have to have a market to justify publication.

The same is true with social networks. How many people are interested in international collaborative projects for elementary students centered around the work of the impressionists? Maybe none. But you can go to and create your own social network for that. Maybe you only find one other person in the world who is interested in the same thing. That’s okay. The two of you can exchange ideas and work together. If you make it public, at some point, someone else may join you. Great! You’ve increased the size of your network by 50%. That’s how these things get started. Two years down the road, you may have 1000 people involved.

The Personal Part of the Network: A Few Tools
You don’t have to join some organized network. Personal learning networks are much less structured than that. As you interact with various communities online, you start making connections with people who share similar interests. You might start out by reading someone’s blog. Look at the comments on that blog. Then, look at the blogs of the people leaving the comments. Find the people who are the most valuable to you. Comment on their blogs. Start interacting. That will help you find more people and more resources related to your specific interests and needs.

The truth is, you don’t really have to have anything besides a web browser. But knowing about some of these tools will help you do more with your network.

  • Blog. The single best thing I’ve done for my professional development in the last five years is start a blog. Every professional working in education should have one. I’ve written about blogging here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. If you don’t have a blog yet, go to Edublogs or WordPress or Blogger or Class Blogmeister and get one. Right now. It’s okay, I’ll wait….
  • rssGet RSS. RSS allows you to stay connected without having to check dozens of web sites and resources every day to see if there are updates. I’ve found that you have to see RSS three times before you understand it. If this is the third time for you, go read this. If it’s the first or second time, watch this Common Craft video and then come back in a week and read the first link.
  • Use Skype. Skype is audio conferencing software that works over the Internet. Connect a headset with a microphone (worth every penny of the $10 you’ll have to spend). Use it to connect with anyone else using Skype anywhere in the world. For free. And you can have group calls, too. Every week I talk to people in other countries (well, Canada, mostly, but still…). I never pay for long distance anymore.
  • Consider Yugma. If you have a need for other people to be able to see what’s on your computer, you can do that with Yugma. Combine it with Skype, and you have yourself a pretty cool webinar. Did I mention that it’s free?
  • del.icio.usUse Put your bookmarks online using That way, you can get to them from anywhere. If you don’t mind other people seeing what you have bookmarked, make them public. You can tag bookmarks with keywords, and sort and search based on them. You can annotate them by adding notes about them. You can also share bookmarks for others, and see what other people in your network find valuable. At the bottom of this page, you’ll see my delicious links tagged for this presentation.
  • Extend with Ustream. Ustream makes it incredibly easy to stream live video from any Internet-connected computer. You’ll have to have a webcam and microphone (less than $50 for both). Sign up on the site, and start broadcasting.

You’re still reading? Wow. Thanks for sticking with me. I think that’s pretty much it. Below are the delicious links for this presentation, but just about all of them are embedded in the context above. Feel free to comment. I’ll see you in the network.